WASHINGTON — The latest evidence shows no signs that China is significantly expanding its long-range nuclear weapons capabilities to counter the United States and its planned national missile defense system, according to a private U.S. nuclear weapons analyst.
Natural Resources Defense Council analyst Hans Kristensen drew that conclusion from a new assessment of Chinese nuclear weapons capabilities he coauthored for the November/December issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
The assessment questions “some of the assumptions behind China’s expected buildup,” he said, citing Defense Department and CIA reports that China might expand its arsenal and perhaps put multiple warheads on missiles to counter U.S. plans for a long-range missile defense system (see GSN, July 15, 2002).
He acknowledged that his conclusions about China’s intentions might be premature. Other analysts see China working aggressively to counter potential U.S. missile defense capabilities.
“All of that depends on things we have not seen yet,” Kristensen said.
Replacements and DevelopmentBeijing has been replacing its aging force of approximately 20 DF-5 missiles with an upgraded model, according to the NRDC report, an analysis of U.S. government reports and other sources.
The number of those 13,000-kilometer-range missiles is believed to have remained fixed at around 20 since the 1980s.
The report also says that China has not yet armed its ICBMs with multiple warheads, but would be able to within several years, according to a CIA estimate.
China has, however, been developing DF-31 missiles, including an 8,000-kilometer-range version that could be deployed as soon as 2005 and a 12,000-kilometer-range version for deployment around possibly by 2010, the study says.
“At maximum range, the [shorter-range] DF-31 may be able to hit Hawaii and Alaska, but not the continental United States,” the study says.
Kristensen said it is not clear whether those missiles would replace or supplement the existing DF-5 missiles. He said China could also increase its strategic capability by arming missiles with multiple warheads. To deploy multiple-warhead missiles, however, would require China to “get over the technical and financial hurdles” it has encountered so far, he said.
China lacks a sufficient command-and-control system for accurately targeting multiple warheads launched from mobile platforms and that could be difficult to overcome, he said.
His report says the CIA “predicts that by 2015, ‘most’ of China’s missile force will be mobile.”
Another Expert DissentsAnother expert disagreed that China might not be trying to expand its arsenal. Richard Fisher, a Chinese military expert at the Jamestown Foundation said in an e-mail that he is not certain that China has only 20 DF-5 missiles.
Furthermore, he said if China chooses to supplement its DF-5s with DF-31s, the deployed force could climb to 60.
He said China’s four to six strategic submarines also have a capability of deploying 16 missiles each against the United States.
“So at a minimum we are potentially looking at … 124 missiles that can hit us,” he wrote.
Fisher also disputed Kristensen’s judgment that China is not headed toward deploying multiple warheads, saying that China displayed a re-entry vehicle at an air show last November that Chinese engineers told him could carry three satellites.
“From that one can reasonably conclude the [longer-range] DF-31 may carry up to three warheads,” he said.
He said China also might put multiple warheads on its upgraded silo-based DF-5 missiles.
“So, sum total, in my minimum estimation, [China could deploy] 160 multiple warheads plus another 84 single warheads, for a possible future total of 244 nuclear missile warheads that could hit us,” Fisher said.
Fisher conceded as Kristensen did, though, that his forecasts were simply speculative about what China might do.
Chinese StrategyChina has deployed ICBMs since the early 1980s and has had technical capability for deploying multiple warheads for nearly as long, according to the NRDC report.
Experts are uncertain why Beijing apparently decided to limit its ICBM deployment at about 20.
“Zillions of trees have been sacrificed on the alter of this question. Ultimately we can’t know its answer because [China] is loathe to allow any transparency in things nuclear and missile, and, consistent with historic Chinese military doctrine, it prizes secrecy and deception above all else to help deter enemies,” said Fisher.
Kristensen and other analysts suspect that China has limited its missile force to a minimum number capable of deterring the United States and Russia.
China “may have concluded that 20 is enough,” he said.
Chinese officials could change that strategy in the future, though, he said.
If U.S. missile defenses “ever work, then they might rethink the number of missiles,” Kristensen said.
Fisher said China might consider an expanded arsenal of up to 244 warheads to be a minimum force to counter working U.S. missile defenses.